April 24, 2024 | Penelope Singh

The Lacandón People of Mexico

Who are they?

The Lacandón are the last primitive tribe in Mexico to make contact with the outside world. And although contact was made only a few decades ago, the Lacandón people remain as isolated as possible, avoiding as much interaction with outside society as they can.

Nearly extinct at one point, they grew their population, but are once again at risk of extinction as modern society takes over their land and their culture. 

This is their story. 

Lacandon People Split image

Where do they live?

They live in the jungles of the Mexican state of Chiapas, near the southern border with Guatemala. Their homeland, the Lacandón Rainforest, lies along the Mexican side of the Usumacinta River.

Waterfalls Agua Azul Chiapas MexicoJorgePM, Shutterstock

How big is their tribe?

Back in 1943 they were nearly extinct, however today their population has grown significantly, yet remains small, at approximately 650.

Grayscale Photo of the Lacandon People of the Mexican state of ChiapasTeobert Maler, Wikimedia Commons

How is their tribe divided?

The Lacandón are divisible into two major groups: the Northern Lacandón—who live in the villages of Najá and Mensabäk—and the Southern Lacandón—who live in the village of Lacanhá Chan Sayab, near the near the ancient Mayan ruins of Bonampak.

Lacandon Little Girl Running In The Grass At BonampakBernard DUPONT, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

What language do they speak?

The Lacandon people speak the Lacandon language—a traditional Mayan language. Native Lacandon speakers refer to their language as Jach tʼaan or Hach tʼan. Most Lacandon people speak Lacandon Maya. Most also speak Spanish.

Portrait Photo of two Lacandon People of the Mexican state of ChiapasPresidencia de la República Mexicana, Flickr

What is their land like?

They live in a rich tropical rain forest, well supplied with water, fish, game, and fertile soil, and home to several beautiful waterfalls and caves.

Lacandon Man in of the Mexican state of Chiapas in a canoeBrunoSchalch, Flickr

What are their distinctive customs?

Lacandon customs remain close to those of their pre-Columbian Mesoamerican ancestors. As recently as the late 19th century some still bound the heads of infants, resulting in the distinctively shaped foreheads seen in Classic Mayan art.

mexican tribeTeit Joergensen, 35mmc

How does the tribe live?

Up until very recently, the Lacandón have lived a very isolated and primitive way of life, living off the land and keeping to themselves, avoiding mainstream society and forced colonization, like many other primitive tribes of today.

Mexican tribeTeit Joergensen, 35mmc

How do they provide for themselves?

Traditionally, the Lacandón were both hunter-gatherers and farmers. They grow corn, beans, squash, tomatoes and various other vegetables. They gather wild fruit, roots, and honey.

Lacandon People Split imageTeit Joergensen, 35mmc

What do they hunt?

The Lacandón are skilled hunters and traditionally relied on wild game and fish. They would make clearings in the forest of their crops and some livestock in which they would acquire through trade.

Mexican tribeTeit Joergensen, 35mmc

What are their villages like?

Lacandón settlements traditionally consist of single households or clusters of several households, known as caribales.

tribal villageTeit Joergensen, 35mmc

What are their homes made from?

Traditional houses are thatched huts that may or may not have walls, supported on pole frameworks. Newer houses are more likely to have concrete floors and walls, with either tin or thatched roofs.

tribal villageTeit Joergensen, 35mmc

Where do they store their things?

Possessions were traditionally stored in the thatch and food hung from the roof in handmade baskets.

tribal villageTeit Joergensen, 35mmc 

What kinds of things to they make?

Crafts include the construction of dugout canoes, the spinning and weaving of cloth, leather tanning, and the making of bark cloth, nets, hammocks, pottery, flutes, bows, and stone-tipped arrows.

Mexican tribeTeit Joergensen, 35mmc

What do they wear?

Although young people increasingly wear Western clothing, Northern Lacandón men usually wear white knee-length tunics and Northern women wear colorful skirts under their tunics.

Both men and women of the Southern Lacandón group wear ankle-length tunics.

Mexican tribeChiapas Paralelo

How do they wear their hair?

The Lacandóns hair is customarily worn long and loose by both genders. The Northern Lacandon men and boys often cut their bangs and the women and girls may braid with ribbons or bird feathers.

The Southern Lacandóns wear their hair long, parted in the middle. Younger generations may cut their hair shorter.

tribal village mexicoTerralingua

When do they get married?

When a boy has reached puberty, the parents choose a suitable wife for him. The father then approaches the potential wife’s family and asks them if his son can marry their daughter. If both families agree, the young boy and girl begin the arrangement.

tribal village in mexicoTeit Joergensen, 35mmc

How many wives do they have?

Typically, each household is made up of a husband, several wives, their children, and extended elderly family members.

Husbands added wives any time they fancied another woman. Polygamy was widely practiced.

Mexican indigenous tribeInsights, Getty Images

What were their religious beliefs?

Until the mid-20th century, the Lacandon had little contact with the outside world. They worshiped their own pantheon of gods and goddesses in small huts set aside for religious worship at the edge of their villages.

Mexican tribeTeit Joergensen, 35mmc

How did they honor their Gods?

The Lacandon made pilgrimages to ancient Mayan cities to pray and to remove stone pebbles from the ruins for ritual purposes. They believe that the Mayan sites are places where their gods once lived before moving to the sky and below the earth.

Close-up Photo of a Mayan Temple Surrounded by green treesHagens_world, Flickr

What did they build for their gods?

Each family build a “God House” next to their personal hut. A God House is where the family would perform various religious ceremonies and rituals using drums, ritualistic meals, offerings and more.

Mexican tribeNik Wheeler, Getty Images

What happened to their religion after outsiders found them?

As a result of contact with missionaries, the Lacandóns became much more secretive with their religious practices. They often moved their God Houses deeper into the forest and away from their homes to make it harder for others to find.

tribal villageTeit Joergensen, 35mmc

What is their economy like?

Traditionally, the Lacandón had no need for a structured economy, as they relied on their own homesteads as their source of sustenance. The more contact that the Lacandón had with other people, the more their economy morphed.

mexican tribeTeit Joergensen, 35mmc

What did they traditionally trade?

Traditional Lacandón would at times trade with outsiders, but there is little to no documentation regarding this contact. It is believed that they traded animals, honey, beeswax, tobacco, cotton, and cacao for much-needed metal tools.

Mexican tribeTeit Joergensen, 35mmc

When were they discovered by outsiders?

The first definite contact with the Lacandóns happened in the late 18th century.

Scholars believed the Lacandóns were direct descendants of ancient classic Mayan people who fled into the rainforest at the time of the Spanish Conquest, and stayed there ever since.

mexican tribeTeit Joergensen, 35mmc

What do we know now?

Although previous scholars were not wrong, what we know now is that the Lacandóns are a distinct ethnic group that was generated through inter-indigenous interaction. They share many similarities to ancient classic Mayan people, but they have multiple cultural origins.

Mexican tribeTeit Joergensen, 35mmc

When did outsiders make contact?

Outsiders avoided the Lacandón region for centuries in fear of legends about the dense tropical rainforest. So, although we knew they existed, we let them be.

For generations the only connections the Lacandón had to the outside world came through trade.

mexican tribeAlma de Chiapas

How did logging and farming affect them?

In the 19th century, outsiders took to the rainforest for logging and new lands for farming. This caused the Lacandóns to retreat further into the forest, until they were eventually unable to stay isolated and remote.

This is when the Lacandóns slowly started trading with outsiders, and learning more about life outside the jungle.

Deforestation in Junglekakteen, Shutterstock

What do they trade now?

In more recent times, the goods the Lacandón were given during trade became more advanced, such as firearms, kerosene, coffee, sugar, and clothing and even technology (as of the 20th century).

Mexican tribeSaatchi Art

How did trade change their traditional way of life?

Since trading with outsiders became more dominant, the Lacandón started raising chickens, cultivating oranges, plantains, sugar cane, and instead of hunting with bows and arrows, were hunting with rifles.

Mexican tribeTeit Joergensen, 35mmc

How did trade change their economy?

Some Lacandón would gain employment from Ladinos in logging camps, and others would receive payment from logging camps for rights to log in their jungle.

But working wasn’t the only way they started making money.

Mexican tribeDiario delsur

How did tourism affect their economy?

By the end of the 19th century, tourists would come to the Lacandón villages and purchase material items like gourd bowls, bows, and arrowheads.

Lacandon Girl in the Lacandon Jungle of the Mexican state of ChiapasAdam Jones, Flickr

What happened after the government got involved?

By the mid-1970s, government policies created reserves and encouraged the Lacandóns to join one of the three major villages. Concrete houses were made for them, and many Lacandóns converted to Christianity—allowing additional wives to separate and marry single men.

Lacandon Man in the Lacandon Jungle of the Mexican state of ChiapasMandoBarista, Flickr

Did they continue their traditional way of life?

As of the last century, Lacandóns have now adopted a westernized way of life. They live in permanent concrete houses, wear western clothing, adopted new religions, started working for money, and abandoned various cultural customs.

Lacandon People Man in the Lacandon Jungle of the Mexican state of ChiapasMandoBarista, Flickr

What is life like for them today?

A few Lacandon continue their traditional religious practices today, and many still live as much of a primitive lifestyle as they are able to. About 20% of Lacandóns today continue to use their traditional hunting and gathering techniques.

Lacandon People walking in the Lacandon Jungle of the Mexican state of ChiapasPresidencia de la República Mexicana, Flickr

Sources: 1, 2, 3


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